Category: The Walking Dead in Popular Culture

Mummies in Media

For years, ancient secrets have been unraveled through the discovery of mummies. When we think of mummies in our society, we think of the whimsical figures that symbolize the approach of Halloween. Hollywood films have often created the resurrection of ancient gods, goddess or important figures though mummies. Often times, we do not think about the cultures that actually practice mummification and the value that practice holds within their society.

The Practice of Mummification in Ancient Egypt

Mummification in ancient Egypt started around 2600 B.C, and this was a process to preserve bodies [i]. Ancient Egyptian religions believed it was important for dead bodies to be in good condition and look as closely as possible to the person before they died. Egyptians believed that the soul left the body after death, and the body needed to be preserved in excellent conditions so the soul could find it in the afterlife to reanimate it [ii].

The process of mummification took about seventy days, and required special priests that could pray and also embalm the body. First, all organs would be removed from the body so that it would not decay. Taking out the brain was a difficult task and could leave an individual with a disfigured face, so it was important that the embalmers were careful. Only the heart was left in the body because it was believed to hold a person’s intelligence and being. Next, all the moisture in the body was removed from a type of salt called natron. Natron was placed around and inside the body, and this helped to dry it out. They were later taken out, and the body would be dried out. Hundreds of linens were then used to wrap the body. Afterwards the body was wrapped with linen, a final shroud or a final cloth.

The process of intentional mummification as performed in Ancient Egyptian culture

After the special priest embalmed and wrapped the body, they performed essential rituals. These rituals were performed to prepare the deceased for the afterlife. “Opening of the Mouth,” was a practiced ritual used to ensure the decease could eat, drink, speak, and see in the afterlife [iii]. Before the priests began the “Opening of the Mouth” ceremony, they first purified the body. During the rite of purification, priests would chant special prayers over the deceased. Once the ritual began, the chief lector priest and assistant priests first sacrificed animals such as gazelles, geese, and bulls. These sacrifices symbolized the killings of the dead king’s enemies. Then, the priests would use the special tools (instruments of Anpu) to open the eyes and mouth of the statue [iv].

“The Opening of the Mouth” Egyptian mummification ceremony


Another essential ritual performed was “The Weighing of the Heart.” This ceremony takes place after the soul enters the afterlife. The soul first confesses for past sins committed then the soul enters into the ‘Hall of Maat” for the weighing of its heart. The heart is placed on a balancing scale; the heart is on one side and ‘Maat’s feather of truth’ is on the other [v]. Ancient Egyptian cultures believed the heart revealed the true intentions of the person. The heart is weighed by the god Anubis, while the god Thoth record the results. If the heart was heavier than the Maat’s feather, the soul would be eaten by the demon Ammut (a hybrid of crocodile, lion, and hippo). If the heart was balanced with the Maat’s feather, the soul would be sent to be judged by the god of the afterlife [vi].

“The weighing of the heart” Egyptian mummification ritual

Tombs for the deceased were built before their death. Final touches were added to the tomb during the mummification of the deceased. After this process, essential items needed for the afterlife such as furniture and statutes, painting of religious or daily scenes, and a list of food and prayers were added to the tomb [iii]. Once the rituals were complete the deceased were placed into the tomb, finally prepared for the afterlife.

Not everyone was mummified and the mummification process tells us a lot about Egyptian culture [ii]. Mummification was a long and expensive process that only certain people could afford. Extensive usage of linen, mummy decorations and jewelry demonstrated high quality in mummification [vii]. This was something only the wealthy or the royals could afford. The mummification process was an elaborate procedure, and it helped to demonstrate the importance of death and afterlife in Egyptian culture. Mummification was a way to remember loved ones and create a memorial for them [viii]. It was important that each body was taken care of properly, and prayers and rituals were done over the body. This reveals the significance of death, and the importance of embalming in this culture.

Ancient Egyptians valued life and wanted to ensure their lives would continue after death. The idea of death and a proper burial was prominent in their society. Arrangement for death were planned early to ensure the spirit reached the afterlife. Mummification was important to Egyptian culture because it was a way of preserving the body to protect the spirit. Ancient Egyptians believed the soul was made up of three components the ka, ba, and akh [iii]The spirit ka remains in the tomb to receive offerings, it is immoral and is nourished by the offering of food. The ba is the soul that freely travels in and out of the tomb, the ba was released during the “Opening of the Mouth” ceremony. When the ba and ka combines it forms the akh [ix]. The akh is the spirit that ascends to the sky to travel to the afterworld [x]. Rituals and mummification were rooted deep into the spirituality of ancient Egyptian culture.

The Practice of Mummification in Eastern Asia

The mummification process was not universal and different civilizations had different procedures. For instance, Korea did not use embalming techniques and the climate did not allow for natural mummification [xi]. Mummification in Korea originally occurred by accident, and was not intentional. In the Joseon period, tombs were constructed with sand, red clay and lime. It was placed on the grave and it hardened the grave and sealed it. This lowered the oxygen inside the coffin and raised the temperature which caused the mummification process to occur [xii].

China’s mummification process was very similar to Korea’s. China also placed clay, lime and sand on their graves; however, they also included sticky rice water. Research done on Korean and Chinese mummies indicated that hair, nails and skin were all found to be preserved really well. The internal organs were also well preserved. The sealing and the humidity in the coffin helped to preserve the dead body. Clothes were also wrapped around the body, and this prevented bacteria in the body from dying. Charcoal was also placed inside the tomb and this absorbed the moisture [xi].

Graves built of lime soil mixture were traditional burial technique called ‘Hoegwakmyo,’ this was a practice in Korea amongst the Joseon people. This practice was vital in their religious beliefs. Additionally, the mummies found in China belonged to Ming and Song dynasty. The tombs found in China were called “sticky rice paste sealed tomb”. The mummies found in China were similar to the ones found in Korea because the remainings were perfectly preserved. The burial techniques in both places were parallel because of their close religious ideologies practices [xi].

A structure diagram on how the “Sticky Rice Paste Tombs were made in China; this technique is similar to ‘Hoegwakmyo.’

As said before, mummification in Korea and China were originally unintentional acts.  Mummification in both places resulted from burial technique, which is not surprising because China and Korea share common cultural origins. Both civilizations burial styles were influenced by the ideology of Confucianism.  Confucianism is an ethical philosophy rather than a religion. Confucianism is built off of the principle of social values, humaneness, and virtue [xiii]. During the rise of the Joseon empire, there was a religious shift from Buddhism to Neo-Confucianism in Korea. The practice of Neo-Confucianism derived from Confucianism. This practice was led by philosophers and innovators who believed in civil service and self-reflection [xiv]. The co-founder of Neo-Confucianism, Zhu Xi believed that ‘Hoegwakmyo’ was the best burial system for Confucianism. Zhu Xi wrote a ritual guide book titled ‘Jujagare,’ that stated sealing the tombs would protect the grave from intruders [xv]. The shift of cultural beliefs resulted in the remains of descendants of the Joseon, Song, and Ming dynasty becoming mummified.

Misrepresentation of Mummification

The ancient practice of mummification is one that has been performed all around the globe in early civilizations: from Egypt to Korea and China. Despite the fact that these sacred rituals were performed in so many places, Western Media, specifically Hollywood, tends to depict Egyptian mummies almost exclusively. Additionally, Western media very rarely portrays said mummies in the light that the ancient culture intended. These misinterpretations raise an ethical concern: Is it justified for the walking dead to be presented in a dark, evil, and mischievous manner in the name of entertainment or should those in charge of present-day Western media be held accountable for contorting several cultures’ traditions and rituals in order to attempt to entertain the public while knowingly misinforming them.

For the past decades, Hollywood has concocted an image of the walking dead, namely mummies, that shows them as figures that “violate laws of nature, mock the laws of man, and disregard the code of the West [xvi]. These same figures are also commonly used as tools of mockery and critique for topics such as consumerism, religion, racism, nationalism, and other ideological concerns and threats of the West. These unearthly souls are commonly presented as embodiments of cannibalism, evisceration, mutation, and predators that kill the living in intimate yet impersonal ways [xvii].

One of the most famous examples of mummies being depicted in a dark light by Hollywood is the film The Mummy. In this action-packed cinema, director Alex Kurtzman paints a scene where a curse resurrects a mummy “seeking either vengeance or a lost lover, wreaking havoc on contemporary society until a hero stops it” [xviii]. Although the Kurtzman film is widely regarded as the epitome of “evil mummy” movies, the public has been exposed to the idea for decades. The public has been repeatedly exposed to the concepts of Egyptophilia and has partaken in a “mummy craze” dating back to before the discovery of Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb back in 1922. Due to the public obsession with mummies and their counterparts, the first Hollywood film, which is now considered “the mother of all mummy films,” had its debut in 1932. The work, also presenting the mummy as an evil undead figure, set the template for other directors. In this film, starring Boris Karloff, an Egyptian priest by the name of Imhotep is mummified alive after attempting to bring back his long-time lover, princess Ankh-es-en-amon, from the dead. Imhotep proceeds to be revived thousands of years in later in contemporary society and believes that his lover is somewhere in London. He continues to look for his lost lover and wreaks havoc on the way [xix]. With ethical concerns aside, the success of mummies in a horror setting is because of the primal fears surrounding life, death, and the undead. In addition, the reports of a curse during the excavation of Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb took off after the supposed words “Death comes on swift wings to him who disturbs the peace of the King” were inscribed on the tomb and the man who financed the project died from an infected mosquito bite [xx]. Just as any businessman and director would do, the opportunity to create work related to this trending topic was seized by many, thus the “evil mummy” stereotype was born.

The overwhelming ethical issue that arose with the creation of the “evil mummy” was the disrespect and mockery of an ancient culture. Since Tutankhamun’s tomb was the excavation that built up all the hype around mummification, early Egyptian culture became a joke, a topic of entertainment despite the historical inaccuracy the media presented the public with.

There have been rules implemented regarding the safety and preservation of real-life mummies within museums which vaguely state that “institutionalized human remains be treated respectfully according to the interests and beliefs of the body’s culture of origin” [xxi]. As a result of the wording of such policies, “respectful treatment” is largely undefined and as a result, these once sacred bodies are consistently degraded by people of the West. Public objections of mummies in museums are more than common as people argue that the display of human beings like an art show is a lack of respect to the human on display, regardless of culture. The other side argues that the display of the mummified corpses is the best way to disprove and eliminate stereotypes created by media [xxii].

Egyptian mummies and those of other cultures were mummified upon death with the intention of the preservation of one’s body. Those who were mummified were more often than not members of said culture’s nobility and due to the high cost of the burial ritual, those who were given the honor were considered sacred [iii]. The conception of mummies that has been painted by Western media is a disservice and an offense to not only those who were mummified, but the rest of the culture as well.


After analyzing the historical rise of mummies in Western media from an ethical, cultural, and scientific perspective, we can conclusively state that mummies are misrepresented by modern Western civilization. In terms of ethical concerns raised by this misrepresentation, the sacred process of mummification and its purpose, which is to preserve one’s soul for the afterlife, is degraded and mocked mostly through movies that present these reincarnated beings as evil. The exploration of scientific and cultural perspectives on mummification enables us to recognize the lack of respect that currently sits with the depiction of sacred traditions. As long as the public is blind to cultural appropriation that Western media promotes, cultures worldwide will never be fully respected.


Makayla Jefferys

Lydia Ocbu

Ian Baracco



[i] Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, “Egyptian Mummies”,

[ii] Clinton Sandvick, Edward Whelan, “Why Egyptians Mummified their dead?”, Last modified January 4, 2018,

[iii] “Egyptian Mummies.” Smithsonian Institution.

[iv] “The Opening of the Mouth Ceremony.” Experience Ancient Egypt.

[v] Mark, Joshua J. “The Egyptian Afterlife & The Feather of Truth.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. April 06, 2019.–the-feather-of-truth/.

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Gessler-Löhr, Beatrix. “Mummies and Mummification – Oxford Handbooks.” Oxford Handbooks – Scholarly Research Reviews. June 16, 2017. Accessed March 31, 2019.

[viii] “Burial and the Dead in Ancient Egyptian Society.” SAGE Journals. Accessed March 31, 2019.

[ix] “Anatomy of the Ancient Egyptian Soul.” Experience Ancient Egypt.

[x] “Egyptian Mummies.” Smithsonian Institution.

[xi] Hoon, Dong, Bianucci, Raffaella, Fujita, Hisashi, and Jong Ha. “Mummification in Korea and China: Mawangdui, Song, Ming and Joseon Dynasty Mummies.” BioMed Research International. September 13, 2018. Accessed March 31, 2019.

[xii] Ibid

[xiii] Oh, Chang Seok, In Uk Kang, Jong Ha Hong, Sergey Slepchenko, Jun Bum Park, and Dong Hoon Shin. “Tracing the Historical Origin of Joseon Mummies considering the Structural Similarities between the Burial Systems of Korean and Chinese Dynasties.” Papers on Anthropology 26, no. 2 (09, 2017): 68. doi:10.12697/poa.2017.26.2.07.

[xiv] Ibid

[xv] “Confucianism.” Asia Society.

[xvi] Miller, Cynthia J., and Van Riper Anthony Bowdoin. Undead in the West: Vampires, Zombies, Mummies, and Ghosts on the Cinematic Frontier. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2013.

[xvii] Ibid

[xviii] Barker, Craig. “Friday Essay: Desecration and Romanticisation – the Real Curse of Mummies.” The Conversation. December 06, 2018. Accessed April 06, 2019.

[xix] Ibid

[xx] Ibid

[xxi] Swaney, M., and M. Swaney. “THE LIVING DEAD: EGYPTIAN MUMMIES AND THE ETHICS OF DISPLAY.” – Share Research. May 2013. Accessed April 06, 2019.

[xxii] Day, Jasmine. “‘Thinking Makes It So’: Reflections on the Ethics of Displaying Egyptian Mummies.” Papers on Anthropology. 2014. Accessed April 06, 2019.


Ghosts and Possession


Ghosts & Possession

Ghosts have been an object of fascination across cultural boundaries for millenia. They are disembodied spirits trapped in liminality, the transition between life and death. The majority of the alleged proof for the actuality of ghosts centers primarily around photographs, videos, and recordings, all of which can be doctored and edited. As a result, these types of ghost documentation are problematic in nature. As a whole, there is a distinct lack of experimental evidence supporting the existence of ghosts. Stemming from previous research flawed by the presence of a human being collecting data, a research study was conducted using a computer automated system and a charge-coupled device (CCD) camera as a means to capture the existence of spirits.[i] Gary Schwartz, the principle investigator, hypothesizes that ghosts emit incredibly faint light, resulting in an increase in photon density in an otherwise dark room. The basic idea behind the set-up of this experiment is to eliminate possible sources of error, including the energy and influence of a physical person, as well as to utilize a light-tight control room to minimize excess photons not emanating from the alleged spirit.[ii] Schwartz recorded a message to play to the previously identified spirits, requesting they enter the room and “fill it with [your] light” at predetermined time intervals.

Results of Schwartz’s study into the existence of ghosts. The trials with the spirits have greater photon intensity than the control trials. (Source:

He ultimately concluded that although the measurement of photons was associated with an increase in density after the recorded instructions were played, the study needed improvements in equipment and sample size in order to confidently conclude the existence of ghosts.[iii]

This use of empirical evidence to try and prove, or disprove, the existence of ghosts is a distinct characteristic of western civilization. The western world tends to have a rational, scientific, Enlightenment-like perspective on life, so it’s particularly interesting that the belief in the paranormal has been increasing recently among younger people in the United States. This may be partially explained by the overall decrease in belief in formal religion which has given rise to people who now call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” This idea of believing in the supernatural but not necessarily religion is breaking the barriers of what people have been formerly allowed to believe in with organized religion. Paired with the rise of ghost hunting shows in the media that appeal to many people’s skeptic side, more younger people in the United States have begun to believe in the paranormal.[iv]

The topic of ghost hunting from an ethical perspective is heavily discussed. Seen as a “cultural phenomenon,” ghosts are not something that should be tampered with. Shows such as “Ghost Hunters,” which ran on TV from 2004 to 2016, were frequently called out for faking paranormal activity and disturbing spirits within the paranormal community. Vincent Amico, a paranormal expert of sixteen years and co-founder of AZ Paranormal Investigations, called the show out. Amico points out that many of the paranormal activity that the show claims to happen are things that happen off camera and can be easily faked. Amico mentions that a true paranormal investigation cannot be completed in one night like it is on TV shows. Most professional investigators take weeks to months and multiple visits to come to a conclusion about the area being investigated. Many professionals also say that these shows are disturbing spirits that may actually be dwelling in the areas where the show is being shot, being that they fabricate happenings.[v] There are various ways to get views and disturbing the spirits of the dead is neither amusing nor ethical.

In most cases, disturbing the spirits will only make hauntings worse. For instance, Chinese culture has incredibly detailed burial rules so that the spirit can cross over and not come back to haunt the living. After one’s death in older Chinese culture, they walked along a bridge to the afterlife where they were judged on how good they were in life. If they were deemed unworthy, they were sent to hell. In Buddhist culture, if the spirit was deemed worthy, they would be reincarnated. In contrast, they would be prayed to with the Gods in Confucianism. The first step to the afterlife was the burial of the deceased. The family of the deceased person would buy a plot of land from the Gods and create a contract with all of the information of the dead person and the dimensions of the grave. The money used to buy the land was paper that the family would draw bills on and then would burn in the grave. This was seen as a sign of respect to the Gods, and if not done properly, the spirit would be sent back down to Earth.[vi]

Most of the stories of hauntings in Chinese culture come from improper burials or defilement of the grave, such as a sister who haunted her brothers until they gave her a proper burial and a mother who haunted her son until the grave robbers that defiled her place of burial were punished. The shui gui is a spirit of a person who drowned and would haunt the water around their death. These spirits appeared because their bodies were never found and could therefore not have a proper burial. These spirits would lure people into the water and drown them. The spirit could then move on, but the newly drowned spirit would take its place. Ghosts were used in Chinese culture as a way to become morally right people. They made sure to respect their elders so that the eventual spirit of said elders would not come back after death. This helped them lead good lives, untempted by spirits that would try to lure them using lust.[vii] Teaching children these morals through ghost stories demonstrates just how serious it was to Chinese people to establish how to properly treat another person, which is extensively taught in Confucianism.[viii]

This image shows children offering fruits and burning incense during the Hungry Ghost Festival

One of the most known festivals among Chinese Culture is the Hungry Ghost Festival, a month-long festival in Buddhist and Taoist cultures where the gates of hell are released and hungry ancestral souls walk among the living. These souls are usually compiled of those that were not given proper burials when they died, so to appease them, food is offered and incense is burned.[ix] One moral lesson taught during this celebration is that people, primarily teenagers, should not stay out too late because a ghost might follow them home. At the end of the festival, lanterns are sent down bodies of water and are said to attract ghosts. Once the lanterns reach the other side, that signifies that the ghosts have gone back to the afterlife and are at peace.[x]

Much like with Chinese culture, Native American culture takes the idea of spirits and ghosts very seriously. Also, in comparison to Chinese culture, many Native American tribes think that if something goes wrong with the burial, or if the grave is defiled, that the spirit will come back to haunt the living. The Oglala Sioux tribe says that the cause for spirits is because the recently deceased envy to live again. Much like what was learned in class, these spirits are stuck in the transition rite of passage and wish not to move on to the incorporation rite of passage to the dead. In order to appease the spirit,

This scaffold is what would hold the deceased’s body that the Oglala Sioux tribe would “feed.”

Oglala Sioux will “keep” the spirit by feeding it for a year so that the spirit can finally cross over and goes along the “ghost road.” Paiute Indians also believe in a similar idea that ghosts will cause sickness and death for the living because they want company for when they depart on the long journey to the spirit world.[xi]

Native American culture has been greatly affected by groups such as black market grave robbers, anthropologists, and scientists. These groups have disturbed the burial grounds of Native Americans in multiple ways for personal gain. Grave robbers sell things such as skeletal remains, sacred tribal items, weapons, and jewelry on the black market. These stolen items are then sold to scientists and museums, the two places where authorities may not assume the remains were illegally obtained. Scientists use the remains for unknown reasons. According to Dr. Emery Johnson, no medical advancements have been derived from the research of Native American remains. Many Native American activist groups see that their ancestors are being unnecessarily disturbed in their final resting place. Native American burial grounds in Texas are also being bulldozed for illogical reasons. In an East Texas museum, remains are disrespectfully displayed in crude ways, such as laying in the windowsill of a women’s bathroom and thrown in a box and sold to museum visitors.[xii] The mistreatment of the remains of Native Americans’ remains causes deep turmoil within their community because so many of their ancestors have been disturbed, causing them problems in the afterlife.

A common theme among many different Native American tribes is the fear of the dead. Many tribes fear that even the sweetest alive person can become a wicked ghost if the proper precautions are not taken relative to their burials and treatment in the afterlife. For example, the white owl is seen as a malicious human spirit that intends to cause sickness or death to everyone near it. Apache people believe that the call of the owl will enter the body and cause sickness, and they create elaborate rituals after hearing the call to ward off the sickness. Ghosts in many Native American cultures are there to try and draw the living closer to the dead. Navajo tribes, like the Apache, also greatly fear ghosts. In order not to offend the spirit, funeral rituals are taken very seriously. Spirits are the manifestation of the hate in human souls. What makes them so frightening to the Navajo is that the spirits cannot be persuaded to be helpful, emphasizing a distinct lack of effective contact between the living and the dead.[xiii]

An attempt to communicate with the dead is demonstrated by the controversial practice of mediumship. Many believe that mediums, people who claim to be able to communicate with the spirits of the deceased, are nothing but a scam that targets people emotionally. Mediumship is often seen as a game of guessing. Some believe that mediums are just masters of manipulation because they can cause their clients to open up emotionally about different topics, which guides them on what questions to ask next. Trances are a very interesting phenomenon that is more common with older mediums. Trance is a term used to describe different states of consciousness within mediumship. Mediums can go into a state of trance when a strong spirit wants to communicate something through the medium’s body. People are skeptical that mediums use this method to further prey upon people’s emotions for personal and monetary gain. There have been no studies that prove mediums can truly connect with spirits through trance. In comparison to possession by evil spirits, trances are possession by good spirits. However, while the trances allegedly experienced by mediums is purposeful, there are also reported cases of unwilling possession in the general population.[xiv]

Throughout history and across cultural boundaries, mental illness indications have frequently been explained by the concept of possessions, where spirits inhabit the minds and bodies of those afflicted with various disorienting and conflicting symptoms. The most blatant manifestations include ‘a temporary loss of the sense of personal identity and full awareness of the surroundings’, which is classified as a dissociative disorder in the DSM-IV-TR. A person with a dissociative disorder experiences disruptions in their memory, consciousness, and general perception of themselves and their environment.[xv] Some specific subtypes of dissociative disorders include dissociative amnesia, a form of pseudoamnesia in which one is unable to recall important personal information and experiences, and dissociative identity disorder, in which one alternates between two or more distinct personality states.[xvi] Both of these psychopathologies contain typical qualities of reported spiritual or even demonic possessions. People fear the voice of the spirit is emerging from the possessed person as they change between marked personalities, and the fact that the person is unable to remember it occurring further confirms the possession. Additionally, it is important to note that the DSM-IV does include diagnostic criteria for a possession/trance disorder to be utilized for experimental research, although the diagnosis itself has not yet been formally included in the manual. Possession/trance disorders describe experiences of trance-like states that are characterized by a delusion of a possession by a spirit.[xvii] This definition and diagnostic criteria is marked with a shortcoming, however, as trances vary across cultures.

Dissociative disorders are not the only mental illnesses that instill the idea of possible spiritual possession. Some of the other more common disorders that have been interpreted as potential signs of possession include psychotic and schizophrenic conditions, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, and even adjustment disorders.[xviii] A study conducted by Samuel Pfeifer, the Medical Director of the Psychiatric Clinic Sonnenhalde, Ganshaldenweg, investigated the trends and prevalence of the belief in possessions, specifically demonic possessions, as the cause of mental illness for religious psychiatric patients. After interviewing over three hundred patients with previously identified mental illnesses, he noted that a rural community structure, single relationship status, and a poor educational background contributed to increased rates of belief in possession. Pfeifer also reported data pertaining to which disorders had higher rates of the application of the supernatural as an explanation for the symptoms of mental illness. Schizophrenia, anxiety, and personality disorders had the greatest percentages. He found that out of all of the patients with schizophrenia, 53% attributed their hallucinations and delusions to demonic influence. This percentage was comparable to those with anxiety disorders, of whom 48% believed their symptoms were a result of spiritual possession.[xix] People with anxiety disorders tend to experience obsessive and distressing thoughts that are nearly uncontrollable; therefore, it is understandable for them to attribute these turbulent symptoms to something that is also difficult to explain. Additionally, panic attacks, another symptom of anxiety disorders, are incredibly constrictive and fear-inducing to the person experiencing one, so a supernatural explanation for such an upsetting event is understandable. The attribution of mental illness symptoms to spiritual possession is a result of people attempting to explain disconcerting, uncontrollable feelings and behaviors.

Exposure to a traumatic event is also correlated with alleged possession experiences. The indications of possession, including depersonalization, dissociation, psychological distress, and alterations in cognition, are also characteristic of both Acute Stress Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). After going through a distressing situation, many people will experience uncontrollable, intrusive thoughts and even physical reactions to stimuli that represent the traumatic event.[xx] For example, PK Philips, a victim of physical and mental abuse for years, suffers from PTSD. Before therapy, she was plagued by images of her attacker, and would experience frequent, debilitating panic attacks, especially when she encountered triggering reminders of her assault.[xxi] Such visions and irrepressible symptoms fit the criteria for possession, despite having an explainable, external cause.

Trauma as a precursor to possession is common among cultures across the world. However, the western world tends to view possession from a psychological perspective, and that strict psychological and societal pressures causes the experience of possession. In contrast, Tibetan Buddhist culture views that possession comes from an embodiment of projected negativity. “Spirits from above” are said to attack the brain and cause paralysis and stroke. It is important for western clinicians to take into account the patient’s own culture and how one’s sense of self goes along with possession. If a clinician does not take into account the patient’s culture, they could accidentally offend or dismiss the patient.[xxii] An extreme form of this ignorance can take the shape of exorcisms where exorcists take on the role of the “clinician.”

Exorcisms have been long disputed about what they actually do to the body physically. For example, Annaliese Michel was a 16 year old German girl who was believed to be negatively possessed. Priests exorcised her multiple times up until her death at the age of 23. She died from malnutrition and dehydration, which is what kills most exorcism victims. The priests that performed the exorcism on her were accused of negligent homicide, along with her parents who allowed them priests to exorcise Annaliese.[xxiii] The practice of exorcism often ignores the physical toll that it takes on both the victim and the person performing it. The body is deprived of water and food because priests see that as nourishing the bad spirit, which could lead to the spirit being harder to exorcise. The negligent nature of exorcisms is what eventually led to them becoming illegal.

Ghosts, spirits, mediums, and the possessed are all subjects of morbid fascination that have intrigued people all around the world since antiquity. They represent the fear that people have of dying and the desperate need for closure with the option of life after death. The answers to life after death may never be explained, but one question remains: do you believe?

Aubrey DeVinney

Crystal Marrow

Peyton Siekierski


[i] Schwartz, Gary. “Photonic Measurement of Apparent Presence of Spirit Using a Computer Automated System.” Explore 7, no. 2 (2011): 100-109.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Baker, Joseph O, and Christopher D Bader. “A Social Anthropology of Ghosts in Twenty-First-Century America.” Social Compass 61, no. 4 (December 2014): 569–93. doi:10.1177/0037768614547337.

[v] Craven, Scott. 2017. “Why Those TV Ghost-Hunting Shows Are Transparently Fake”. Azcentral.Com.

[vi] Mark, Emily. “Ghosts in Ancient China.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified April 20, 2016.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Riegel, Jeffrey. “Confucius.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. March 23, 2013. Accessed April 09, 2019.

[ix] Heng, Terence. “Hungry Ghosts in Urban Spaces: A Visual Study of Aesthetic Markers and Material Anchoring.” Visual Communication 13, no. 2 (May 2014): 147–62. doi:10.1177/1470357213496520.

[x] Mark, “Ghosts in Ancient China”.

[xi] Varner, Gary. Ghosts, Spirits & the Afterlife in Native American Folklore and Religion. Raleigh, NC: Lulu Press, 2010.

[xii] Mihesuah, Devon A. “American Indians, Anthropologists, Pothunters, and Repatriation: Ethical, Religious, and Political Differences.” American Indian Quarterly 20, no. 2 (1996): 229-37. doi:10.2307/1185702.

[xiii] Varner, Ghosts, Spirits & the Afterlife.

[xiv] Alvarado, Carlos. 2010. “Investigating Mental Mediums”. Med.Virginia.Edu.

[xv] Bhavsar, Vishal, Antonio Ventriglio, and Dinesh Bhugra. “Dissociative trance and spirit possession: Challenges for cultures in transition.” Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences 70, no.12 (2016): 551-559.

[xvi] American Psychiatric Association. 2000. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-IV-TR. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Pfeifer, Samuel. “Belief in demons and exorcism in psychiatric patients in Switzerland.” British Journal of Medical Society 67, no. 3 (1994): 247-258.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Last, Benedicte. “Possession, Exorcism and Mental Illness: A Multiple Case Study Across World Views.” Order No. 10117883, California Institute of Integral Studies, 2015.

[xxi] Philips, PK. “My Story of Survival: Battling PTSD.” Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

[xxii] Last, “Possession, Exorcism and Mental Illness.”

[xxiii] Ibid.

Cannibalism and Kuru

Cannibalism, also known as anthropophagy, is the consumption of the flesh of one human by another.[7] While it may immediately bring feelings of sickness to most, is it actually an ethical practice? Before diving into the ethics of cannibalism, it is important to define the different forms cannibalism can take.

Because there are many types of cannibalism, it is necessary to divide them into two groups: active and passive cannibalism. Active cannibalism is killing someone with the intent to eat them. On the other hand, passive cannibalism is consuming someone that is already dead.[7] Jill Hobbs also divides cannibalism further into groups which focus on the reasons for cannibalism: religious/ritual, emergency/survival, and fetish.[7]

Religious/ritual cannibalism is also known as learned cannibalism because people learn about it from a previous generation. This type of human consumption is commonly used as a practice of respect for elders who have passed.[7] While this type of cannibalism is usually peaceful, violence is sometimes involved when looked at from a ritual angle of the culture. Motivators behind religious cannibalism can also include “the desire for revenge, to crush one’s enemy, to eliminate internal or external threats, to magically stave off negative forces, or simply to feast.”[7]

Ritualistic Cannibalism was practiced by all generations.

Survival cannibalism is defined as consuming the flesh of another human in an emergency to prevent death by starvation.[7] This type of cannibalism can be seen from an example including four Englishmen who were lost at sea in 1884. After their ship got destroyed and they were left with no supplies, three of the men decided to kill the fourth in order to eat his body. They decided to kill this man because he was very sick and death was said to be imminent. By doing this, there would be three survivors total rather than none, so the seamen decided it would be the best option.[6]

The final kind of cannibalism ­­­Hobbs discusses is fetish cannibalism. While many people tend to think of a fetish only as something sexual, this type of cannibalism is considered a fetish because the consumer is “fulfilling the desire to consume human flesh.”[7] This type of cannibalism is the least commonly practiced and discussed.

So, is cannibalism considered ethical or not? When arguing against cannibalism, one of the first arguments to be brought forth is the concept of natural law. Natural law is defined as the order of the world, and to break the natural law is to violate the order of the world. In this sense, many argue that consuming a member of your own species is wrong and immoral..[3]Another common argument against this practice is simply disgust – if the majority of people are disgusted by something then it must be morally wrong.[5] Evolution is also seen as a factor that does not support cannibalism because of the consequences it can have. One consequence involves putting the cannibal at risk of catching disease. If a cannibal does not know why the person they are consuming has died, they could contract a disease that will kill them as well. The more prominent consequence in society is ostracism – especially if violence was used to obtain the corpse.[5]

        Josh Milburn describes how cannibalism can be both ethical and unethical depending on the situation and whether or not consent is given. He divides cannibalism into three categories: violent, corpse interference, and waste.[5] All of these types of cannibalism can be completed with or without consent. Violent cannibalism is when a human is killed with the intent of cannibalism. Non-consensual violent cannibalism is usually seen as murder, a clearly unethical act. Though much less common, there are also instances of consensual cannibalism. The most well-known case of consensual cannibalism occurred in Germany when Bernd Brandes gave permission for Armin Meiwes to kill and eat him.[5]

Corpse interference cannibalism is very similar to passive cannibalism because the person being consumed is already dead. The famous example of the Donner Party is an example of non-consensual corpse interference cannibalism because the cannibals were eating members of the party who had already been killed because of the harsh weather and lack of supplies.[5] Corpse interference can also be consensual if a person gives consent before they die, usually in a living will..[5]

The third and final type of cannibalism Wilburn describes is waste scenarios – having a part of a body removed for a reason other than the sole purpose of cannibalism. The body part being removed is usually for medical purposes in order to save an individual’s life. If the body part being removed is eaten by another human being, it can be either consensual or not depending on the donor’s wishes.[5]

Others see cannibalism itself (only in the sense of eating human meat) as completely ethical and support passive cannibalism. William Irvine says “I will argue that when it comes to develop an ethics of eating, the stomach all too often triumphs over the mind,” when explaining why he believes it is ethical to consume someone who has already passed away.[12] He defends his argument by using the analogy of raising babies on farms and fattening them up to eat them like we do with other animals. He points out that we all see this is unethical to do and asks why it is okay to do this to other animals when there is good human flesh available from deceased bodies.[12]

Milburn had a similar idea to this when talking about LGF (lab grown flesh). By practicing this, no harm is done to either animals or people.[5] He states “we have a dearth of convincing rational arguments against cannibalism in-and-of-itself. Though we have good moral reasons to object to typical instances of cannibalism, these do not extend to LGF cannibalism… we should allow our feelings of disgust to give way to good ethical reasoning.”[5] Milburn argues that by eating LGF, there are no unethical circumstances or violence surrounding animals or people.[5]

Lab grown flesh is seen as alternative way of obtaining meat.

For those who practice cannibalism as a part of their culture, both historic and religious components come into play. B. Beau states “Men have always eaten one another; they will continue to do so in the future as they have in the past.”[2] As someone who participates in this practice himself, he points out that this is a tradition that is not an accident, people see it as a law created by the gods. He argues that not only is cannibalism ethical, it is beneficial to society. Because the old and sick are being eaten, it makes the population stronger as a whole and keeps the population at a level that can be sustained by the available supplies. Eating others after a war is also seen as a type of natural selection because those who do survive the war are “truly worth to live and perpetuate themselves.”[2]

Overall, there is no right or wrong answer to whether or not the consumption of one human by another is ethical. While many argue that it is not, there are arguments that support it based on the situation and type of cannibalism, especially when it comes to religious/ritualistic cannibalism.

Anthropologist tends to use subcategories of exocannibalism and endocannibalism when focusing on religious/ritual cannibalism. Exocannibalism refers to the consumption of members from a culturally established outside group and endocannibalism to refer to the consumption of members of one’s own group.[12] Exocannibalism is normally affiliated with the purpose of striking fear in the enemy as well as to engross the spirit of the enemy and involves killing. Endocannibalism is often seen as displaying respect for the deceased and correlated with an effort to maintain the group’s identity. It’s related to burial ceremonies and sometimes called “mortuary cannibalism” or “compassionate cannibalism,” endocannibalism rarely involves killing.[12] For example, the Fore people of New Guinea justified their mortuary cannibalism with the belief that when they consumed the corpse, the spirit of the dead is being protected in the bodies of those who ate them.[11]

Women preparing the food that will also be used while cooking their loved ones.

When researchers made their way to the villages in New Guinea during the 1950s, they found out that among a tribe of about 11,000 people called the Fore, up to 200 people, a year was dying from an illness called kuru. Kuru means “shivering” or “trembling.” Once the symptoms set in, it was sudden death. First, those affected with kuru would have troubles with walking and that was seen as a sign that they were about to lose control over their muscles and limbs. They’d then lose control over their emotions, which is why some people called it the “laughing death.” Within a year, they wouldn’t be able to control their own bodily functions, feed themselves, or even be able to get up off the floor.[1] Many locals were assured that it was the result of sorcery. The disease primarily affected adult women and kids younger than eight years old which resulted in having almost no young women left in some villages.[4]

This drawing is showing a women cooking their loved one’s body parts.

After discovering out that Kuru was not a cause of genetic mutations, medical anthropologists Lindenbaum was convinced that it had something to do with eating dead bodies at funerals.[13] In many villages, when somebody passed away, they were cooked and then consumed because it was seen as an act of mourning and affection. As one Fore villager explained, “when burying the body, it would be set on a platform to be eaten by maggots and worms. So it’s a better idea for the body to be eaten by those who loved the dead instead of various insects and worms.”[14] With this being said, women were tasked with removing the brain, mixing it with ferns, and cooking it in tubes of bamboo. Women then fire-roasted the body parts and ate everything but the gallbladder.[15] Women were tasked with eating the deceased body parts because their bodies were thought to be competent in housing and controlling the malicious spirit that accompanies a dead body. “Women took on the position of devouring the dead body and providing it a safe place inside their own body — taming it, for a duration of time, during the dangerous time of mortuary ceremonies,” stated Lindenbaum.[13] However, women occasionally pass pieces of the feast to children and they always ate what their mothers gave them without question. Interestingly enough, it was discovered that once sons reached a certain age, the moved to live with all the men in another location and they were then told: “to not touch that stuff.”[11] Finally, after some influence from researchers and anthropologists, biologists finally came around to the idea that the kuru originated from eating dead people. The case was concluded after a group of biologists at the U.S. National Institutes of Health inserted an infected human brain matter into chimpanzees, and observed Kuru symptoms develop in the chimpanzees months later.[4] Kuru passes between people this way because it belongs to a category of diseases known as prion diseases.

Prion diseases are caused by malformed prion proteins found commonly in the brain. These deformed proteins can lead to brain and nerve damage, as well as other symptoms.[12] Transmissible prion diseases can be spread by the consumption of an infected person’s organs, especially the brain, as that is where the greatest concentration of prion proteins are found.[9] While prion diseases are rare, they have no known cure and they are always fatal.[12]

Perhaps the most well-known example of a widespread prion disease is the kuru epidemic in Papua New Guinea. In 1957, “when it was first investigated…it was found to be present in epidemic proportions, with approximately 1000 deaths…[between] 1957-1961.”[13] In Papua New Guinea, kuru was transmitted through “the local mortuary practice of consumption of the dead.”[13] Even though the practice was prohibited in the 1950s, the long incubation period of kuru led to deaths caused by the illness happening years after practices of endocannibalism (the consumption of the body of a deceased relative) were outlawed. Kuru’s incubation period range from “34 to 41 years,” or up to “39 to 56 years” in men.[4] Kuru was found more often in children and adult women than in adult men, with “60 percent of cases in adult females…two [percent] in adult males and the remainder in children and adolescents of both sexes.”[1] This distribution was caused by the mortuary customs of the people living in the area. When an individual died, their “whole body was eaten by female relatives and their children of both sexes. Adult males…rarely partook of the body and never ate the brain or other organs.”[13] Because the women and children consumed the bodies and organs of their relatives, they were put at a much greater risk for contracting kuru than those who did not.

Graph showing the age distribution of kuru deaths in Papua New Guinea.

While prion diseases are the most well-known result of cannibalism in humans, there is also concern about the possibility of spreading other types of diseases or parasites. Studies have found that cannibalism in animals “[reduces] the prevalence of parasites…by both directly killing parasites in infected victims and by reducing the number of susceptible hosts.”[11] In humans, “because cannibalism is no longer a regular feature of human populations, it is impossible to assess the degree to which [diseases other than kuru] may have had this as a transmission mode.”[1] However, it has been suggested that tapeworms or certain blood-borne infections could be aided by cannibalism, even if that is not their primary means of transmission [13].
Cannibalism occupies a unique place in the world. There are those who believe that the consumption of human flesh is unethical and unsafe, pointing to prion diseases such as kuru that can be spread by cannibalism. On the other hand, there are many places where cannibalism is practiced and is a celebrated part of a culture and lifestyle, such as the Fore people of Papua New Guinea or the Wari’ of the Amazon. Cannibalism is often sensationalized and misunderstood, but because of its importance to various cultures and groups, it should be studied much more thoroughly to dispel stereotypes and misconceptions.

Grace Karegeannes, Hannah Brown, Charlotte Grush



1. Alpers, Michael P. “The Epidemiology of Kuru: Monitoring the epidemic from its peak to its end.” The Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 363 (2008): 3707-3713.

2. Beau, B. “A Defense of Cannibalism.” International Conciliation, February 15, 1909.

3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Prion Diseases.”

4. Collinge, John, Jerome Whitfield, Edward McKintosh, John Beck, Simon Mead, Dafydd J. Thomas, and Michael P. Alpers. “Kuru in the 21st Century – an acquired human prion disease with very long incubation periods.” The Lancet 367 (2006): 2068-2074.

5. Haïk, Stéphane, and Jean-Philippe Brandel. “Infectious Prion Diseases in Humans: Cannibalism, Iatrogenicity, and Zoonoses.” Infection, Genetics and Evolution 26 (2014): 303-312.

6. Hansas, John. “From Cannibalism to Caesareans: Two Conceptions of Fundamental Rights.” Hein Online 89, no. 3 (1995).

7. Hobbs, Jill. E. “Canada, US-EU Beef Hormone Dispute.” Encyclopedia of Food and Agricultural Ethics, 2012, 1-8. doi:10.1007/978-94-007-6167-4_358-4.

8. Hurd, Paul. “Art or Science? A Controversy about the Evidence for Cannibalism.” Scientific Controversies: Philosophical and Historical Perspectives 9, no. 5 (2011): 199-211. doi:10.2307/1292853.

9. Irvine, William B. “Cannibalism, Vegetarianism, and Narcissism.” Between the Species: An Online Journal for the Study of Philosophy and Animals 5, no. 1 (1989). doi:10.15368/bts.1989v5n1.2.

10. Lindenbaum, Shirley. “Understanding Kuru: The Contribution of Anthropology and Medicine.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B:Biological Sciences (2008): 3715-720. Accessed April 7, 2019. doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0072.

11. Mathews, Jason. “Kuru Sorcery: Disease and Danger in the New Guinea Highlands. Palo Alto.” CA: Mayfield Publishing Company. Cult Med Psychiatry (2017) 41 (1979): 1-2.

12. Milburn, Josh. “Chewing Over In Vitro Meat: Animal Ethics, Cannibalism and Social Progress.” Res Publica 22, no. 3 (August 2016): 249-65. doi:10.1007/s11158-016-9331-4.

13. Rudolf, Volker H.W., and Janis Antonovics. “Disease Transmission by Cannibalism: Rare Event or Common Occurrence?” The Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 274, no. 1614 (2007): 1205-210.

14. Van Allen, Benjamin G., Forrest P. Dillemuth, Andrew J. Flick, Matthew J. Faldyn, David R. Clark, Volker H.W. Rudolf, and Bret D Elderd. “Cannibalism and Infectious Disease: Friends or Foes?” The American Naturalist 190, no. 3 (2017): 299-312.

15. Zigas, Vincent. 1990. Laughing Death : The Untold Story of Kuru. Clifton, N.J.: Humana Press.

© 2020 Death & Dying III

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑